In the Water

Fri, 06/12/2015 - 7:30am

Then there are the nights I walk into my kitchen and see a white glow behind the old farm next door. It is not the color of flame nor is it in the right place for a beach fire, rather an other-worldly light from a source that is hidden, mysterious. It is too even to be any natural phenomena, surely it must be aliens landed on the beach, good ones, of course, curious, not hostile, that by morning will have left only footprints which will be washed away with the next high tide or sand moving wind.

It is a boat; just a narrow flight of old steep stairs higher I see lamps shining in the night, so brightly they turn the solid wall filagree mimicking the pattern of the lacy curtains. I think, fleetingly, that it is odd this time of year; it is usually in deep winter that fishing vessels illuminate the night and cast shadows on the wall.

The boat, which looks now to be a barge, was there come morning, its white lights still shining and the long arm of what appears to be a crane visible in the sporadically fog-shrouded June day.

It must be here (I foolishly thought) to extricate the excavator that fell from a barge last weekend and is lying on the floor of the Old Harbor. It is in tidal waters and I have to wonder how much sand has already moved around it, embracing — or devouring — it, the way sand moves from under our feet when we stand on the edge of the shore where waves can wash over us.

There is an old boiler in the harbor, likely first left there with an expectation it would soon be removed. The sand began its work and now it is more buried than not. Once when the harbor was being dredged some of us thought, without thinking it through, it an opportune time to remove the big old metal drum. It would be a much more complicated procedure, obvious when the first few words of explanation were spoken.

It was a strange thing, the big excavator slipping, something I did not witness but heard about and went to see for myself. From the top of the stairs behind the Old Harbor Inn, it did not look like there was much to see and but for the number of people on the dock I likely would thought everything to see had happened.

Even out at the end of the west dock, it took a while for the circumstance to be clear, a big yellow excavator was partly in the water, between the big solid barge and another not so heavy that looked half on its side, a gray turtle in transition.

The high crane sitting on the big barge had not been operable for awhile and another piece of equipment was needed to lift its stabilizing pilings, the spuds that are a sort of anchor, from the grasp of the harbor floor. Something went terribly wrong, the yellow machine slipped to the edge of the platform which tipped and took on water and suddenly the fate of a project that has been plagued was sealed.

The only thing that could happen absent the arrival of Superman did; there was noise and the smaller barge flipped completely, the excavator fell deeper into the water, its arm alone extended above the surface. It reminded me of an image on the Post Office bulletin board when I was little, when the facility was where Heartspace is today. I could not yet read and have no idea what the text said but the drawing was of a hand of a drowning man reaching up with a last hope of being saved from a watery death.

Or that is how I recall it.

The audio on a video posted of the first slip into the sea does offer some reassurance, calling for the spill kit and boom already on site to be gotten out; by the time I left the harbor the familiar white oil containment device was being put in place although later photos showed a significant sheen on the surface of the water.

Everyone living along the coast of southern Rhode Island in the 1990s remembers the North Cape oil barge grounding that produced a bad spill but not one beginning to match others around the country. What I remember most was the smell in the air and the speed with which the oil evaporated even in winter making a potential ecological Armageddon a mere catastrophe. And a newscaster breathing a sigh of relief that the oil, a purple blob in the graphic on the television screen, was headed away from the shore. That it was headed straight for the mouth of Block Island's New Harbor was of no concern to anyone but us and we were on our own. The town bought a boom.

Time told that damage to the south shore of the state was far greater than anticipated in those first days, spawning and feeding grounds were compromised, a reminder how bad this stuff can be.

What has happened to this breakwater project baffles me. They seemed to be working steadily all winter and I dismissed talk of an ominous cloud hanging over the project as a product of too much snow and cold. Then one deadline was moved, and another and still the end of the wall, so badly beaten, showed little progress and my queries of when the green light would be returned became pointless.

The equipment which intrigued me all winter did not exist when the harbor was created in the latter part of the 1800s. The long east wall has been battered and has been repaired other years, its surface smoothed, its end rebuilt, its light reset.

The whole project is beginning to feel like summer, just beyond our reach. The season, we know, will eventually arrive, I wish I could be so sure about the end of this east wall reconstruction.